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FXI, other organizations concerned over proposed board for public broadcaster, question group's "commitment to freedom of expression"

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of an FXI press release:

Labour and civil society write to President Mbeki to oppose SABC Board appointments

Several labour and civil society organisations have sent a joint letter to President Thabo Mbeki objecting to the list of names forwarded to him for the new Board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). We have asked him not to appoint them, and rather to send the list of names forwarded to him back to the National Assembly for reconsideration.

The letter was sent from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), Media Workers' Association of South Africa (Mwasa), the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), the South African Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-SA), the South African NGO Coalition (Sangoco) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

The organisations argued in the letter that, as representatives of the labour movement and civil society, we do not believe that the list of nominees fulfils the requirement of s.13(4) of the Broadcasting Act.

According to s.13(4)(a), the Board, when viewed collectively, should consist of persons who are suited to serve on the Board by virtue of their qualifications, expertise and experience in the fields of broadcasting policy and technology, broadcasting regulation, media law, frequency planning, business practice and finance, marketing, journalism, entertainment and education, and social and labour issues.

(. . . )

In addition, we believe that the Board does not represent a broad cross-section of the population, as required by s. 13(4)(c) of the Act. There are clearly no working class representatives, nor are there any representatives from the communities of interest mentioned above (namely journalism and labour). The Board is obviously what President Mbeki would refer to as a "first economy" Board; it does not represent the totality of the South African populace, and especially has no representation from South Africa's poor and marginalized communities ? the "second economy".

We also object to the fact that six members of the old SABC Board - namely Fadila Lagadien, Christine Qunta, Alison Gilwald, Ashwin Trikamjee, Andile Mbeki and Khanyisile Mkhonza - have been included in the list and thus stand to be re-appointed to the new Board. In their capacities as members of the incumbent Board, they have failed to demonstrate that they are "persons who are committed to fairness, freedom of expression, the right of the public to be informed, and openness and accountability", as required by s.13(4)(d) of the Act. We therefore believe that they have demonstrated that they are unfit for re-appointment to the SABC Board.

The incumbent Board has presided over unacceptable incidents of unfairness and censorship. More specifically, the Board has responded inappropriately to the findings of the Sisulu Commission of Enquiry into allegations of blacklisting of political commentators. The Commission found that a number of commentators were excluded on grounds that were not objectively defensible, in violation of the Board's own editorial policies.

In spite of the damning nature of the report, the Board expressed its full confidence in the person responsible for the exclusions, Managing Director of SABC News, Snuki Zikalala, while allegedly issuing the "whistleblower" in the incident, SAFM news anchor John Perlman, with a warning in spite of the fact that he was vindicated by the Commission.

The SABC also attempted to interdict the Mail and Guardian newspaper to force it to take down a copy of the Commission's findings from its website. The Johannesburg High Court dismissed this attempt, noting that it was not acceptable to suppress information written in the report. These are not the actions of a group of people who are committed to fairness, freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.

We are especially concerned about the prospect of Christine Qunta being appointed Chairperson of the Board. In her existing capacity as Deputy Chairperson, she has presided over the problems mentioned above, and has defended the Board's actions publicly, including in her individual capacity in her interview with the Portfolio Committee on Communications.

(. . . )

We are also mindful of recent public controversies, where allegations have been made of a list being imposed on the Portfolio Committee on Communications by the African National Congress (ANC), which - if it proves to be true - could amount to political manipulation of what was meant to be an open and transparent process.

We believe that, when taken together, all these factors are sufficient grounds for a review of the existing list, as a pall has now been cast over the credibility of the entire process. If the people whose names appear on the current list are appointed, the pall will hang over the SABC for the next five years, which may do untold damage to the broadcaster.

To read the full report/statement, see: http://www.fxi.org.za/content/view/141/1/

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